At 11:42 pm on a Wednesday night I opened the front door to a weary-eyed social worker, a police officer so rigid he looked to be vibrating, and a two, perhaps three-foot tall blanket that may have been light green at some point in its history. I stepped to the side to allow them entry. No one moved. Red, usually attached to my hip, stayed in the doorway in a sit position, but his front paws crept forward until the tip of his black nose nudged the blanket. A tiny hand appeared, touched the top of Red’s head, and then quickly withdrew. The movement snagged a silky frayed edge and the cloth fell away to reveal a mess of brown hair, round blue eyes and a perfect spray of freckles across cheeks and nose. The boy stared straight ahead, jaw set, lips rigid, “I not talk,” he said.
I nearly smiled, but this felt like a test, so I nodded once and said, “Good to know.” I ignored the woman’s raised eyebrows and instead, turned and walked down the hallway, as though welcoming a frightened child and two strangers into my home with five children asleep upstairs and my husband deployed was simply another day in the life. It wasn’t. But I had trained for and signed on to be an emergency therapeutic foster parent, and it was far too late at night to admit I might be in over my head.
A piercing, rigid scream coincided with me flipping a switch in the kitchen; the brightness igniting the sound and the child until both dissolved onto the floor, skittered across the tile and came to rest as a steady choking sob in the corner of the room. I glanced toward the sound of whispers in the hallway, heard the baby cry, heard the upstairs floor creek with footsteps and nearly missed the words from woman to officer, “I thought I mentioned he doesn’t like to be touched.” Still, my focus was on the dog huddling peacefully next to the trembling boy in the corner of my kitchen. My first thoughts: Who the hell touched him? Then: Dog is fine, boy is breathing, floor is clean. Really, this is my brain in crisis-mode.
I’m sure I heard God chuckle as I ushered the adult people out of my home with a quiet thank you. To my ears I sounded like a crazed Ms. Manners. I just barely controlled my urge to laugh aloud at their relieved smiles, the promise that the child would be placed in a permanent foster home by the weekend; and the pitifully small paper sack in my hand with the name “James” scrawled in black marker. It was weep or deal time so I closed the door, found two pillows and a large quilt and settled in for a long night on the kitchen floor.
Until that night I thought I knew what was in the next room, what kids like for dinner, what grass feels like on bare feet. I was comfortable with the orderly mess I orchestrated each day. It was crazy and hard and joyful and it was mine. Until the night of James — when I discovered that in three years a child can be so badly abused that his small world is reduced to a corner in the kitchen and an old soiled blanket.
On day two, James and I compromised with a makeshift bed upstairs next to Red’s pillow at the end of Aaron’s crib. He dressed himself, but only while underneath the blanket draped over his head. He ate with his hands, brushed his teeth and appeared intrigued by the maneuverings of the older children in the house. They spoke to him, answered for him, proclaimed his cuteness and ignored his quirks. Still, he did not talk. He paid no attention to Aaron, or so I thought, who, for most of the day remained strapped to my chest in sling. One morning, in the midst of a chaotic (our norm) breakfast, signing papers and packing lunches, James tentatively stepped very close to me and with the edge of his soiled blanket, reached up and wiped a bit of spittle from Aaron’s chin. For an instant all activity stopped. A collective deep breath filled the space and then – through the guidance of angels perhaps – we all knew not to react to this tender moment – instead, we resumed chaos as usual.
Baths were out. Since I drew the line at Red and the blanket in the bathtub, our first attempt at bathing ended in shrill screams and a brief regression to his safe place in the corner. Sheri – in all her eight-year-oldness, cleaned out the plastic baby pool and with Red’s patient cooperation, a bar of soap and a three-year old at the end of a hose, we had a semi-clean boy and a sparkling, if not matted, Golden Retriever every other day.
James’ two day emergency stay turned into two weeks, four days and three hours – this according to James –and not duly noted until the day I received a phone call notifying me of a permanent home move, to which I responded with a simple, no thanks, he’s already home. The social worker was still speaking when James took my hand (a touch miracle of its own) and pointed with glee to his tiny drawings on the wall in his safe corner. This was the first smile, the first initiated touch and the first emotion I’d seen from this child. After some confusion (he still wasn’t speaking) I came to realize that he had drawn meticulously neat small dots to represent hours, circles around exactly 24 dots to represent days and squares around each set of circles to represent weeks. Also, he was partial to blue crayons, which oddly complimented my yellow flowered wallpaper.
Patience is not one of my virtues. I tend to set my course and go, obstacles be damned. James, though, elicited a calm in me I cannot to this day explain. I was content to watch him watch life, soak it in and return to his safe place in the corner as necessary.
Red was my Godsend and as it turns out, James’ confidant. Shortly after the baby pool baths began – and out of necessity – I showed James how to brush Red’s coat. Our back deck was about a foot off the ground and built around a large oak tree. Each day, James would sit on the edge of the deck next to the Oak trunk. Red would cuddle up to his left side and as the brushing began – a methodical, tender child stroke – James would quietly talk. Usually, I sat in a glider on the other side of the massive oak rocking Aaron, but James never seemed to notice that there was anyone else in the World except for him and Big Red. He told Red in vivid detail about his broken arms, his round scars, his mommy’s bruised eye, how Man #3 was more mean than Man #2, but wrestled better until he got mad. How touching meant hurts and talking was trouble and how he thought maybe Man #1 might be his dad who went to Heaven but mommy didn’t tell him for sure.
On the forty-second day of James, a sunny, breezy day, James asked Red if he ever wanted to be a cowboy some day. I heard hope in the question and I so wished Red could just this time… answer the question with a hearty Yes! I was still smiling to myself when I heard Red’s sigh from the other side of the Oak, heard his nails scratch the deck board as he stood and shook. James – holding on to Red’s collar – appeared at the side of my chair. He reached out and patted Aaron’s head, touched my hand and asked, “Could Red and me please have a butter jelly sammich, Mommy Lynn?”
Exactly one year, thirty days and two hours from the first moment we met – and I have the wallpaper saved to prove it — James left our home to live with his natural grandparents in another state. From letters and phone calls I know that James learned to ride horses – to be a cowboy – and in high school he began to train dogs specifically to work with abused children.
That was the year I learned to listen. Really listen. I kept notes – The Journals of James – I wept in the shower each night for the pain this child endured, I testified in court to make sure Man #3 saw the inside of jail cell, I learned to listen to small words, small gestures, tiny movements and night terrors and wait with baited breath for the moment when a simple request for a butter jelly “sammich” rocked my world.
We have to be willing to wait.